Posted: July 17, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Phyllis M. Byrne, known for the hours she puts in on Republican causes, has been elected the Sussex County party chairwoman, although it took a circuitous route for her to get there.

Byrne won the right Monday evening to serve out the unexpired four-year term of Keller Hopkins, who resigned in May from the top post in the most Republican of Delaware's three counties to spend more time on his construction firm. Her tenure will last until April 2005.

Byrne defeated John L. Rieley in a vote by secret ballot, 27-19 with two abstaining, at a meeting at the Delaware Technical & Community College campus in Georgetown.

"I believe people know how hard I work," Byrne said. "I have a pretty strong following in the county."

The election moved Byrne up from the Sussex vice chairwoman, a post she assumed in 2001, and Rieley agreed immediately after the vote to accept the second ranking spot.

Byrne is a Lewes resident who can be found seemingly always at the county party headquarters in Georgetown. Her Republican credentials include work as a White House aide for George H.W. Bush, the father of the current president.

Rieley is a Millsboro poultry farmer who challenged state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., a Bethany Beach Democrat, in the 20th Senatorial District in 2002.

For a time it was Rieley who appeared to have the Sussex chairmanship sewn up. After Hopkins resigned, the county Republicans set up a search committee, chaired by state Sen. Gary F. Simpson of Milford, to nominate a replacement. After Byrne said initially she wasn't interested in the job, Rieley emerged as a likely possibility, but Byrne later reconsidered.

The committee interviewed both of them and recommended Rieley, Simpson said.

Then came talk that there might not even be an election. The party bylaws provided for the vice chair to take over if the top post opened up, which meant Byrne could claim it if she wanted.

It was a situation that could have festered. Then J. Everett Moore Jr., a Georgetown lawyer who stepped down in May as the Republican state chairman, warned that an election was essential to the interests of the party. Moore may not have a title these days, but he remains perhaps the most influential Sussex County Republican, and plans for an election proceeded.

"We have to have an election so that we can let the committee people decide," Moore said.

The vote was scheduled for a meeting last month, but there were questions about whether a quorum was present, so it was postponed until Monday. The delay apparently helped Byrne to build her support.

There was more at stake for the Republican Party than a simple contest for county chair, because Sussex has become fundamental to its fortunes. For example, a heavy Republican turnout there in 2002 salvaged a victory for Attorney General M. Jane Brady and let the party roar to a 29-12 edge in the state House of Representatives.

Moore warned that a split in county ranks would be damaging to William Swain Lee, the Sussex retired judge who is the front-runner for the 2004 gubernatorial nomination in an underdog role against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat.

"We have to come out of this united. We have to elect a Sussex County governor," Moore said.

Lee pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome. He did not take sides and was safely upstate at a Republican function when the election took place. "The result was probably the best one," he said. "Phyllis has built up a lot of loyalty. John is a relative newcomer, but he is now a factor in the party."

Sussex unity may or may not turn out to be elusive, but at least there were no questions raised about the legitimacy of the election. Bradley Layfield, the treasurer who oversaw the vote, took care of that when he gave instructions for filling out the ballots.

"Make sure you write only one name. We don't want another Florida incident," Layfield said.